Read part 1 here.
SOFTBALL GAME 1995
The permanent-marker words taunted me from the shiny surface of the DVD. I’d been staring at it for half an hour, chewing at my acrylic thumbnail, too scared to put it in my MacBook but unwilling to throw it away. What was on this DVD was bound to be worse than the last one. I had three options: 1) throw the DVD away and leave Gretchen to her fate, 2) call the cops and possibly be responsible for her death, 3) watch the DVD and go from there.
I sighed. Put the DVD in my laptop. Held my breath.
The opening footage was shaky, focused on 9-year-old me, growing girl Amanda Schneider at bat during a sweaty summer baseball game. Knobby knees, awkward elbows. My favorite beat-up LA Dodgers hat on my head. I watched as I looked over my shoulder, unsure, towards the camera in the stands.
“Don’t look at me, Mandy, look at the pitcher!” a deep, masculine voice boomed. I covered my face with my hands, knowing what was coming, but peeked through my fingers.
9-year-old me glanced back towards the mound just a hair too late; the baseball zoomed past without a swing.
“Oh, Jesus H. Christ,” the voice came again.
Shut up, I thought bitterly. Shut up, shut up. I’m just a kid.
“Strike one,” called the umpire.
It was useless, I remember thinking. That girl was an incredible pitcher. There was a rumor that her dad iced her arm every night.
The next pitch was a fireball; I swung hard but the ball hit the catcher’s mitt with a crack. Strike two.
“What did we practice for all week, Mandy?”
I hated those practices. I hated baseball, too, after a while.
The pitcher wound up, rocketed another screamer across the plate. I swung, tipped off the ball. The catcher caught it, no sweat.
“Fuckin’ typical,” said my step-dad, and lowered the camera just as it cut to Gretchen again.
She was in the same dark room, same harsh light on her pale face. Freckles and scar tissue stuck out in brilliant contrast. Cockeyed on her head was a faded blue hat with the iconic interconnected L and A — I was shocked to realize it was the hat, the same hat from the video, the favorite hat I thought I lost when I moved out of that awful yellow house for good.
She was weeping, mouth still covered with duct tape. It looked fresh. Her hair, once bright red and kinky, hung limp in her face. It was the color of old rust.
Gretchen leaned forward, sagging against her bonds. She looked exhausted. My hat teetered on her head but didn’t fall.
The next two minutes were just of her sobbing quietly into the duct tape.
Then, cut to black —
JOGGING ANY MEMORIES?
A pause, then —
FIGURE IT OUT. WAIT FOR MORE. NO COPS
OR SHE DIES
I didn’t bother to watch the video a second time. I was already thinking about that summer of 1995, the one where I told Gretchen about my step-dad and how he was making my life a living hell.
“He yells at my baseball games,” I said glumly, picking at a loose thread on my comforter.
“A lot of parents do that.” Gretchen was thumbing through one of my Tiger Beats, pausing to take a closer look at Mario Lopez shirtless. “It’s supposed to hype you up.”
“Yeah, but that’s not what he’s doing. Clay doesn’t yell nice things, he yells mean stuff.” I pulled on the thread and watched as it unraveled. I wondered how I was going to get out of next week’s game.
“Like what?” she asked, only half-interested. Mario Lopez’s abs were more appealing than my problems for the moment.
“He makes fun of me. Tells me I should be doing better. We practice all week, Gretchen, the whole stupid week but as soon as I get up to bat I get all… watery.”
Gretchen lowered the magazine and regarded me from behind her thick lenses. She’d gotten new frames, silver wire instead of pink. They suited her, made her look kind of like a librarian. A smart one, not a mean one.
“Yeah,” I said, seeing how far I could pull the loose thread before it broke. “Like, in my legs. I don’t know how to stand or when to swing even though I really do. I can just feel him up in the stands with that god damn camera, watching me.”
“I’m sorry. That really sucks.”
“It does,” I agreed. My fingers plucked at the string for another moment, then I let it go and looked at Gretchen. “I don’t know what my mom sees in him. He’s gross. And mean. And not like…” I trailed off, unwilling to say it, but Gretchen knew what I meant.
“He’s nothing like your dad,” she said gently, putting a hand on my knee. “From what you told me, I can tell that right off.”
I forced a smile and rested my hand on hers.
“Thanks, Ducky. It’s hard to explain but I knew you’d get it.”
Gretchen squeezed my knee twice, one of our codes for ‘everything’s going to be okay’, then let it go and began leafing through Tiger Beat again in search of more cute boys.
“Why’d your mom marry Clay in the first place?”
“Nuts if I know,” I muttered, reaching past her for another issue. “She says he’s nice to her but I don’t see it. Maybe it’s just because he makes money.”
“He doesn’t make a lot or you wouldn’t still be stuck here.” Gretchen said this breezily but I could tell there was tension in her voice. We’d been best friends for three years, I knew when she was getting upset.
“I’m not stuck here, dummy. I’m glad I get to live near you.”
There was a moment where Gretchen seemed to be staring not at the magazine but through it. Then she said,
“One day, you won’t be.”
Before I could ask what she meant Gretchen was tossing the magazine aside, swinging her freckled legs over the side of my bed and hopping down.
“C’mon. Let’s go make some Jiffy Pop. I’m starved.”
“Clay’s out there,” I said wearily, knowing he’d be two or three beers deep by this time of night.
“What’s he gonna do?” She put her hands on her hips and jutted out her lower lip in that way she did when she got sassy. “I’ll knock his teeth out if he says anything to you. Besides, you’re not exactly at bat right now. You’re just going to make your best friend in the world some popcorn. Let’s see him heckle you at THAT.”
That made me laugh. Gretchen could always make me laugh. So we did as she said and made some popcorn and wouldn’t you know it, Clay didn’t even look in our direction once.
There were no new clues in the footage to tell me where Gretchen was being held or if there was anything I could do other than my Dodgers cap. And what did that mean? For all I knew, Mom had donated it to Goodwill when I left for college. I was left with nothing.
I couldn’t do this alone.
After a few hours of thinking, I picked up my iPhone and jabbed out a text message to my best friend Erin:
Can you come over? I need your help with something. Don’t tell anyone. It’s super urgent.
I hesitated, then before I could talk myself out of it, hit send.
While I stared at my phone, waiting for Erin to reply, I thought about how I’d quit baseball two weeks after that video had been shot. Clay had been furious; Mom was the only reason I wasn’t forced to go back. For the rest of the summer, I hid in my room and tried to imagine what life would’ve been like if my Dad hadn’t gotten sick all those years ago.
Erin typed back:
Sure babe, on my way
Thanks. Can you do me a favor and check the mailbox on your way in?
I ran to the door, nearly slipping on the hardwood in my socked feet. I opened it to see Erin. She was holding a new DVD case.
“Is this what you were looking for?” she asked, puzzled, and held it up towards me.
SCHOOL PLAY 1998
“Fuck,” I said, and let her in.